Discovering our Inner Lost Sheep

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Like many of you, I spent a fair amount of time watching the Olympics a few weeks ago. While I am enthralled by the acrobatics of Simone Biles or the sheer dominance of Michael Phelps, I often find the less successful athletes much more compelling. One such athlete is Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea who competed in the 100 meter freestyle at the Olympics in Sydney. In many ways, Eric was the unlikeliest of contenders. He had only taken up swimming eight months before the start of the Olympic Games. To put that in perspective, that’s like, well, someone taking up swimming eight months before they compete in the Olympic games. Nevertheless, the International Olympic Committee had awarded Equatorial Guinea a wildcard draw as a way of encouraging participation by developing countries. Thus, Eric was competing at the highest level of his sport despite the fact he had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool until he arrived for his first heat.

There’s no question that Eric was deeply sensible of his inadequacies, but he decided to go through with the race anyway. In an extraordinary coincidence, all of his competitors false started and were unexpectedly disqualified. This left Eric to complete the race entirely by himself. In the Disney version of this story, Eric would have set a world record, but in reality the race was excruciating to watch. eric_moussambaniWithin a few strokes, it became clear that he had never swum any significant distance. By the time made the turn at 50 meters, people were openly wondering whether he would be able to finish or even survive the race. Ultimately, he completed the race, winning his heat (remember, he was the only competitor) with the slowest time in Olympic history. Though his performance initially elicited laughter from the crowd, the spectators gradually realized they were witnessing a true Olympic moment. We assume that the Olympics are meant to celebrate superhuman feats of athleticism, but Eric reminded us that in the end, these athletes are as frail and vulnerable as the rest of us.

This morning we hear two famous and related parables about human frailty: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. These parables follow essentially the same formula: something is lost, someone seeks and finds it, and there is much rejoicing. What is striking about both of these parables is the extraordinary effort that is put into finding the lost. The shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find just one. Even though Jesus seems to imply that this is standard practice, the fact is that losing sheep was part of being a shepherd in the first century. One lost sheep out of a hundred would barely register; it was the cost of doing business. In a similar way, this woman spends the day turning her whole house upside down in order to find the one coin she misplaced, potentially losing wages or time to run her household. At the very least she had to use precious lamp oil to look for something that wasn’t worth all that much in the grand scheme of things. When faced with similar situations, most of us would simply conclude that we could probably take the hit: we can live with the loss of a sheep or two. The implication of these parables, however, is that God doesn’t engage in this kind of calculus. As Henri Nouwen writes, “God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter…From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed…to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy.”

Now it’s important for us to consider Jesus’ audience. Even though the occasion for this teaching is the fact that Jesus has been criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus is not speaking to them. He is actually addressing the scribes and Pharisees, the people who supposedly have their life together and ostensibly have no need of repentance. We might imagine their impatient response to these parables: “It’s certainly a nice thought that God will seek out those poor sinners even when it is a waste of everybody else’s time. In the meantime, here we are, doing our very best to stay out of trouble and keep our noses clean. We have never left home and have always done what we are supposed to do. What do we get from this God who seeks out and finds the lost?” imgresJesus has a startling suggestion for the scribes and Pharisees: “What if you’re the ones who are lost? What if you are the lost sheep who has strayed from the flock? What if you are that lost coin that rolled under the sofa?” With these parables, Jesus insists that everyone needs to be found, because everyone is lost in some way. The message of these parables is as much for those who have wandered off as it is for those who think they never left.

The scribes and Pharisees aren’t the only ones who have had trouble understanding this. We know we have a generous God who reaches out to the lost and rejoices when they return. It has been burned into our brains by years of faithful church attendance. The funny thing about religious people is that for all of our talk about God, we would much rather be left to our own devices. We do everything we can to conceal our vulnerabilities, to hide our inadequacies, to imagine that we have everything under control. We all like to think that we are Michael Phelps or Simone Biles: confident that we will succeed as we prepare to knife through the water or soar through the air. But this is only true on the rarest of occasions. Most of the time, we are much more like Eric Moussambani: plagued by deep feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy as we stand before the largest pool we have ever seen.

This is the nature of our human condition. We are inadequate; we are broken, and we are lost. But we begin to overcome this condition through the practice of repentance. Repentance is often misunderstood. It’s not about pleasing God with acts of contrition. It’s not even about being sorry for our sins. Repentance is about acknowledging the fullness of God’s reality even as we recognize our own inadequacy. It is about trusting that God’s grace and love transcend the hopelessness and sinfulness that characterize so much of the human experience.

Nothing illustrates this practice of repentance better than the Eucharist. So many of you are struggling in some way. Some of you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of keeping your family together. Some of you are grieving the loss of a spouse. Some of you feel betrayed by someone close to you. Some of you are just coping with the day-to-day challenge of life. There are moments when all of us feel broken, inadequate, and lost. Even though we are fully aware of our lostness, we have the opportunity to experience the fullness of God’s grace every time we come forward to receive the Eucharist. When we come to the altar rail, we have the opportunity hear the sounds of divine joy as we recognize, even for a fleeting moment, that no matter how lost we are, we have been found by God.

Winners and Losers

Sermon on Luke 13:10-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Despite my deep love of baseball, I have never been any good at it. Perhaps the best example of this is the fact that when I was a little leaguer, I had the ignominious distinction of striking out in T-Ball. Just to be clear, I had three opportunities to hit a stationary ball off a tee, and I missed every time. Needless to say, no one was particularly surprised when I abandoned the baseball diamond for the choir stall. Before hanging up my cleats, I attended our team’s end-of-season awards banquet at a local Italian restaurant. Even though I was objectively the worst player on the team, I received a trophy. In fact, everybody received a trophy at that banquet. Even if we rode the bench the entire season, missed every game, or struck out for every at bat, each of us would receive a gilded plastic baseball player mounted on a scrap of marble.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but those trophies were part of a larger conversation about how we as a society encourage our children. As early as 1992, Newsweek ran an article lamenting the hypocrisy of what the author described as “trophy syndrome.” If anything, this conversation has become more contentious over the last decades. Advocates for rewarding participation claim that the practice encourages cooperation, builds self esteem, and fosters psychological health.Screen-Shot-2015-10-12-at-11.57.58-AM Meanwhile, opponents argue that the participation trophy discourages competition and fails to prepare people for the realities of the world. One recent article casually notes that “inflated self-esteem has been found in criminals, junkies, and bullies,” apparently implying that giving a child a participation trophy will lead her to a life of crime. Other commentators are more measured, but no less insistent: “We have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner,” writes one critic. “It just isn’t true.” Ultimately, this is what the critique of participation trophy syndrome boils down to: if there are to be winners, there must in turn be losers. To put it another way: if everyone is special, then no one is.

This morning’s gospel reading makes an important contribution to this conversation. Though this passage seems pretty simple at first, a closer look reveals that this moment in Luke’s gospel is anything but straightforward. In particular, the dispute between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue speaks to the very heart of our faith. The controversy begins when Jesus heals on the sabbath. As we know, the Jewish Law prohibits performing any kind of work on the seventh day of the week. Jesus violates this injunction when he heals a woman of her infirmity. The leader of the synagogue’s indignance is palpable: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he charges, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” While this might seem unnecessarily callous and finicky, his point is actually motivated by a combination of compassion and respect for tradition. The leader of the synagogue certainly wants this woman to be healed, but he also wants his people to remember the sabbath and keep it holy. The sabbath is one of the ways that the Jewish people know who they are; they are the people who stop every six days and recognize that they are not the masters of the universe. They are a people who have a healthy understanding of their place in creation. Jesus seems to be disregarding this beautiful tradition for the sake of a fleeting gesture.

Characteristically, Jesus’ response to his opponents is both unapologetic and somewhat unexpected. He refuses to concede that he has done anything wrong. But he also declines to make the case that the rules about sabbath are outmoded and irrelevant, as we might expect. Instead, Jesus notes that even the Law permits some work to be done on the sabbath: “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” Even under the most stringent sabbath regulations, this was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, something this synagogue crowd would have understood. Jesus argues that the same logic applies to this “daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years.” Jesus insists that she shouldn’t have to suffer for even one more day. In some ways, this moment is merely an expression of one of Jesus’ more memorable aphorisms: the sabbath was made for people and not people for the sabbath.

Ultimately, however, this is not an argument about the finer points of sabbath observance. The leader of the synagogue is not primarily interested whether the healing of this woman qualifies as an exception to sabbath regulations; his primary concern is about dispensing with the commandments for the sake of just one person. healing_smJesus could have healed this woman any other day of the week; he could have remained in town another day or arrived early. Instead, Jesus heals this woman, this daughter of Abraham from this bondage on the sabbath. What made her so special? More to the point, what made Jesus so special that he could deliberately and provocatively undermine the fourth commandment? This moment in Luke’s gospel exposes one of the most challenging elements of the Christian faith, what some have called “scandal of particularity.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes the gospel known through particular people. He heals the sick, restores sight to the blind, and even raises the dead, but there plenty of sick, blind, and dead people who remain that way. Why does Jesus heal this person and not that person? Though some have attempted to offer explanations, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the way Jesus chooses who will experience the healing power of God.

Paradoxically, this is good news. The religious authorities wanted to know what made this woman so special that she should be healed on the sabbath. By freeing her from her bondage, Jesus provides a stunning and resounding answer: nothing. There is nothing that made her worthy of being healed on the sabbath. It was God’s grace, made known through Jesus Christ, that freed her from bondage. The religious authorities saw the healing of this woman in terms of winning and losing. If she was a winner, did that make them losers? By healing this unworthy, un-special woman, Jesus makes an astonishing claim: we are all losers. We are all unworthy. There is nothing that makes us special. All of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. And here’s the extraordinary thing: since none of us is special, since there is nothing we can do or have done to merit God’s grace, all of us are equally deserving of God’s grace. The critic who suggested we have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner had it exactly right, because none of us is winner. There can be no losers in the kingdom of God because we are all losers.

Our culture tends to make success a measure of our worth. Those who win, those who come in first, those who prove themselves to be special are accorded a superhuman status. Our fascination with elite Olympic athletes is proof enough of this phenomenon. But those who win are equally susceptible to failure. They are plagued by flaws and inadequacies, and a day will come when they will lose. The gospel refuses to equate success and worthiness. In fact, the gospel dispenses with the very concepts of success and worthiness. None of us is worthy of redemption; we are all equally dependent on the grace and mercy of God. In the end, all of the trophies we receive are meaningless; the only thing that truly matters is the extraordinary gift of God’s grace.

Drowning out the Noise

Sermon on Hosea 1:2-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Casablanca, Michael Curtiz’ 1942 film about war and romance, may be the most quotable of all time. Every scene seems to contain at least one memorable line, from “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris.” In a film full of incredible scenes, one scene in particular stands out for what it expresses with almost no dialogue at all. During the scene in question, Victor Laszlo, an idealistic freedom fighter played by Paul Henreid, and Rick Blaine, a cynical expatriate played by Humphrey Bogart, are discussing the merits of resisting the forces of tyranny. Their conversation is interrupted by Nazi officers singing a German patriotic anthem. Laszlo indignantly strides over to the house orchestra and instructs the bandleader to play “La Marseillaise.” The band obliges, and everyone in the cafe stands and sings. Before too long, the singing of the German officers is drowned out by the triumphant strains of the French national anthem. It’s a stirring scene, and it’s especially powerful when you consider the fact that Casablanca was released in 1942, long before Allied victory in the Second World War was assured. This scene held out hope that the chaos and darkness of the world could be overcome, that we could raise our voices in song and drown out the noise of tyranny and oppression.

Yet that is not the most powerful part of this scene. Just before the orchestra begins playing the French national anthem, the bandleader looks to Rick for approval. Until this moment in the film, Rick has been the ultimate pragmatist; earlier in the movie, he excuses himself from a political conversation by saying, “Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon.” But, when the bandleader looks to Rick for guidance, Rick nods ever so slightly. If you aren’t paying attention, you’d almost miss it. Yet, that almost imperceptible nod signals a fundamental change in Rick’s character. It is the turning point in the story, the moment Rick’s perspective shifts from that of a pragmatist to that of an idealist, from self-interested cynic to altruistic hero.

A similar shift in perspective colors our reading from the prophet Hosea this morning. Hosea’s words are initially striking for their anger. In some ways, we expect this from prophets. All the Hebrew prophets have moments when they rail against the faithlessness and sinfulness of their people. Hosea’s anger, however, is unique for its uninhibited, no holds barred ferocity. The first verses of the book contain a withering indictment of Israel’s faithlessness. The prophet writes with a pointed rage that dispenses with social niceties: “The land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” Hosea goes on to insist that God’s wrath will be complete and merciless: God will “put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” and “will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.” Hosea goes so far as to claim that Israel has abdicated its role as God’s chosen people, that God’s people have nullified their covenant with God. His rant concludes with a devastating proclamation from the LORD: “You are not my people, and I am not your God.”

Though this language is uncomfortable, it is consistent with Hosea’s vocation. While “prophet” tends to be synonymous with “seer” in our language, the primary role of the Hebrew prophets was not to predict the future. It was, instead, to tell God’s people that continuing their current trajectory would yield exactly the results they would expect. In other words, the vocation of the Hebrew prophets was to tell people they would have to lie in the bed they had made for themselves. The people of Israel had made quite a bed for themselves: they refused to follow God’s commandments, they failed to act with righteousness toward the marginalized, and they persisted in worshiping idols instead of the one true God. The punishments that Hosea describes are simply the just requirements prescribed by the Law. The collapse of Israelite society is evidence of God’s righteous judgment. As far as Hosea is concerned, his people are getting exactly what they deserve for violating their covenant with God. Israel had repeatedly failed to hold up its end of the bargain, and God was finally fed up.

And yet, that is not where Hosea concludes. This chapter ends with a surprising and subtle shift. In fact, if you weren’t paying attention, you might even miss it. After a blistering litany of condemnations, the prophet writes, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’” Though this rhetorical turn is almost imperceptible, it is of enormous consequence. Hosea effectively nullifies the condemnation he pronounced in the preceding verses. Hosea insists that God’s love cannot be erased by the failures of God’s people. This is not an isolated moment. Several chapters later, the prophet offers these words from God: “How can I give you up?…O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal.” Even the noise of Israel’s persistent disobedience is drowned out by the urgent song of God’s grace and love. In the face of Israel’s inevitable and well-deserved condemnation, God offers a categorical “yet.”

One could say that “yet” is the biggest little word in the Bible. It is the word that promises hope when all hope seems lost. It is the word that affirms that God’s covenant with us cannot be nullified by our unfaithfulness. It is the word that raised Jesus Christ from the dead and defeated the powers of sin and death. It is a word that signals a fundamental change in the way we understand our relationship with God. God’s love is not contingent on our ability to follow God’s commandments; in fact, God’s love is not contingent on anything. Instead, God’s love is rooted in the fact that God is God and no mortal, that God will be who God will be. Hosea’s “yet” signals that even the deepest human frailty can be quenched by the even deeper well of God’s grace.

Though we understand the centrality of grace in theory, it is hard for us to put this knowledge into practice. This is especially true when we bear witness to the calamities that have been afflicting the world over the past several months. We tend to feel that we need an answer to all of the problems that plague us before we bother with the question of grace. What we fail to understand is that grace is an answer to these challenges. Grace is an antidote to the chaos and darkness of the world, because it empowers us to shift our perspective. Grace enables us to claim joy in every circumstance, at all times and in all places (always and everywhere). While this shift may be subtle, even imperceptible, it makes all the difference in the world. In the face of the deepest human frailty, we are called offer Hosea’s “yet,” and proclaim the unfathomable depth of God’s grace and love. We are called to sing of God’s faithfulness, trusting that our song can drown out the noise.

God’s Economy

Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Despite its rich cultural heritage, the city of Boston has very few iconic songs. Cities like New York can claim an enviable discography that includes the likes of Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra, and Jay-Z. Meanwhile, many of the songs about Boston are written by a punk rock band called The Dropkick Murphys, and they feature lots of screaming. Perhaps the best-loved Boston anthem was recorded by a group called the Standells in 1966. Even though the group was from California, this song has become the quintessential Boston song: it’s played at the end of winning Red Sox and Bruins games and has been honored by the Massachusetts legislature. You would probably expect this beloved song to pay homage to some honorable figure or moment from Boston’s storied past, like Paul Revere or the Boston Tea Party. But the song is actually called “Dirty Water,” a reference to the less than clean Charles River.

It's actually not so dirty anymore...
It’s actually not so dirty anymore…

The song describes some of the frustrations with living in Boston (especially if you were a rock star in the 1960s) but always returns to this cheerful refrain: “I love that Dirty Water; Boston you’re my home.” Yes, Boston’s favorite song, the song that most embodies the Bostonian spirit is an ode to a river so polluted that Harper’s Magazine once described it as “foul and noisome, polluted by offal and industrious wastes, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water.” Nevertheless, Bostonians really do love that dirty water. Even though it is disgusting to outsiders, the Charles River is an emblem of Boston’s collective identity: its gritty tenacity, its stubborn refusal to be bullied, and its awesome capacity to survive. Even though they probably wouldn’t swim in it and certainly wouldn’t drink out of it, Bostonians love that dirty water because it helps them understand who they are.

Though the Jordan River is not nearly as dirty as the Charles, it must have looked similarly unimpressive to Naaman the Syrian. Naaman is one of the more relatable characters in the Hebrew Bible. We all come to a point when we realize that our ability to control our own lives extends only so far. Namaan, who had control over so many aspects of his life (he was wealthy, commanded an army, had political clout) had no control whatsoever over leprosy, this debilitating and alienating skin disease. We can understand his enthusiasm when someone tells him about Elisha: “Finally! Here is someone I can pay to regain control over my life.” When Naaman heads south to Samaria, he carries all the trappings of someone who is prepared to do anything to get what he wants: sacks of gold and silver and truckloads of expensive garments to barter with. He is ready to pay dearly for Elisha’s help. But when he arrives at the prophet’s door with his retinue, Elisha does not greet him as a foreign dignitary, but sends out a servant, who tells Namaan to follow the laws set out in Leviticus and to bathe seven times in the dirty waters of the Jordan River. Now the rivers in Namaan’s homeland are much more impressive and support the livelihoods of many more people than the Jordan; the name of one of the rivers, the Abana, can actually be translated “golden stream.” It’s no real surprise, in other words, that Namaan says “aren’t the rivers of my homeland better than all the waters of this Podunk country?” As we know, the Jordan, like the Charles in Boston, was much more than just a waterway for the people of Israel, it was a symbol of God’s power. God could use even the dirty waters of the Jordan to redeem God’s people. In a very real way, the Jordan reminded the people of Israel of their collective identity as a people who belonged to God. Naaman, however, was incapable of seeing this. Instead of welcoming the elegant simplicity of Elisha’s solution, Naaman balks. This was a man who was used to getting what he asks for when he asks for it, and as far as he is concerned, Elisha has told him to jump in a river.

Naaman was told that he had to do something very simple to achieve his aims, and yet he could not make sense of this. He thought that it couldn’t possibly be that simple. This world is a complicated place; people appreciate effort and authority and credentials and wealth. How could the power of God be given to those who simply wash themselves in a dirty river? How is it that Naaman, who was prepared to pay good money for his cure, was given the same solution he would have been given if he were a poor beggar who had nothing to offer?

We should avoid emulating Hannibal Lecter for more than just his economy of exchange.
We should avoid emulating Hannibal Lecter for more than just his economy of exchange.

What Naaman failed to understand is the crucial difference between the economy of God and that of the world. Naaman assumed that he would have to barter with Elisha, that his relationship with the God of Israel would be a quid pro quo kind of interaction. But God does not operate within this economy of exchange. God’s is an economy of grace, an economy of gift, an economy of abundant love that overshadows the wealth and influence of this world. Naaman was focused on what he could do; Elisha reminded him to focus instead on what God can do and what God has done.

Over the past several months, a variety of media outlets have published some version of the same article. The thesis is pretty straightforward: we should stop saying “sorry” when we mean “thank you.” If I am late for a lunch appointment, for instance, I shouldn’t say, “Sorry I’m late,” but rather, “Thank you for waiting.” For the most part, the articles have counseled that this helps us to become less anxious and generally kinder people. This subtle shift, however, does more than reduce our anxiety; indeed, it changes the way we experience the world. When we say “sorry,” we, like Namaan, assume an economy of exchange. We assume that when someone does something for us, we are in their debt. This leads us to keep track of every gesture of goodwill and every insult in order to ensure that our ledger is balanced. Ultimately, this worldview results in either shame or entitlement: shame when we get more than we deserve, entitlement when we get less. Saying “thank you,” however, dispenses with this economy of exchange. Gratitude assumes an economy of grace because it recognizes that everything is a gift. If everything is a gift, nothing is actually deserved. Gratitude precludes both entitlement and shame. This is what Paul was getting at when he referred to “new creation” in the climactic verses of Galatians. The new creation is where the economy of grace is operative. The new creation is where we dispense with the economy of exchange and shift our focus from what we can do to what God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gratitude is how we inhabit this new creation. Gratitude allows us to experience life as a gift from God and helps us understand who we truly are: a people who belong to God.

The Gospel according to Roy Williams

Last week, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Both teams played with brilliance and passion. Indeed, it was the most exciting Championship game anyone can remember: there were countless lead changes and the result literally came down to the final moments of the game. Kris-Jenkins-buzzerbeater-jpg-300x169With 11 seconds remaining, UNC was down by three. Marcus Paige, the veteran Carolina guard, attempted an ugly, contested three point shot, which miraculously found the basket, tying the game. With 4.5 seconds left, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono drove the ball down the court and passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched and made a buzzer beating three pointer, winning the game and shocking millions of viewers. It was one of the great finishes in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, one of those moments that reminded me why I enjoy watching sports.

The most compelling moment of the Villanova victory, however, took place off the court. After the game, correspondent Tracy Wolfson interviewed Roy Williams, Carolina’s highly decorated head coach. Though these post-game interviews are a standard and often tedious part of the sports viewing experience, full of platitudes and cliches, there was something different about this one. imgresWilliams’ face was red and swollen; it was clear he had barely composed himself for this interview. As he fought back tears, he told Wolfson, “I’ve been a head coach for 28 years, and the worst thing on a loss like this is I feel so inadequate.” It was a moment of searing honesty and undeniable truth. Carolina played brilliantly. They “left it all out on the floor,” as the saying goes. They shot astonishingly well (65%) from the three point line in spite of being the worst three point shooting team in the history of the school. They even made a nearly miraculous shot to tie the game with seconds left. In other words, they did everything right! Yet they still lost the game. No wonder Coach Williams felt inadequate. He was bereft, because everything he implicitly understood about the game of basketball and about life had come crashing down. After being asked what he said to his team in the locker room, Williams mused, “I just talked, I mean…nothing, because you can’t say anything.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his life before he had his experience of God’s grace: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul had everything going for him. He was doing everything right. He was more than adequate; he was confident that he could make himself worthy of God’s favor with his accomplishments. “Yet,” he continues, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” There was a moment in Paul’s life when he realized that in spite of all his accomplishments, he was inadequate. There was a moment when everything Paul understood about the world came crashing down. In this moment, Paul had to locate his trust, not in his own ability, but in the grace that had been made known to him in Jesus Christ.

Ironically, the most eloquent moment of the interview with Roy Williams was when he admitted that there was nothing he could say to his players in the face of their loss. With this admission, Williams uncovered a fundamental truth: when we come face to face with our inadequacy, words fail us. Several years ago, the Diocese of North Carolina released a video featuring the Right Reverend Michael Curry, who is currently the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. At one point, Bishop Curry describes what it’s like to bring Holy Communion to those on the margins of life. “What do you say to a person who is dying?” he asks. “What do you say to a person who is on death row? What do you say to a person that is addicted to a life that’s destroying them? I don’t have the words and you don’t. But Jesus does.” That is the gospel. As Roy Williams demonstrated last week, there are moments in our lives when words will fail us, when accomplishments will fail us, when our carefully constructed self-image will come crashing down. The only thing that will not fail, that cannot fail is the grace that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.

Perspective

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be heard here.

A few weeks ago, George Clooney received the Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes.  For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Clooney is a film actor, director, and producer who is generally considered one of Hollywood’s elite.  He was also regarded as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, that is until his marriage in September to Amal Alamuddin, a lawyer with an international reputation and an impressive resume.  imgresAt the Globes, host Tina Fey introduced Mr. Clooney’s bride, saying “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three person U.N. Commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip.  So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.”  This joke is effective not only because it exposes the ludicrousness of awards ceremonies in which celebrities give golden statues to one another, but also because it puts the entire enterprise into perspective.  Though George Clooney is among the most celebrated people in Hollywood, his accomplishments seem trivial when compared with those of his spouse.  Tina Fey’s one liner highlights the importance of perspective, the necessity of making sure that our priorities are oriented correctly.

In our epistle reading this morning, we hear Saint Paul highlight the importance of perspective.  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is among his more practical: he addresses specific issues pertaining to community discipline, attempts to mediate disputes among members of the community, and makes discrete suggestions about how to live faithfully.  The portion of the letter we heard this morning comes from a much longer passage in which Paul takes up questions about marriage.  From the misleading brevity of this passage, we might assume that Paul does not regard marriage as a worthwhile enterprise.  In these three verses, Paul comes across as a Stoic philosopher, appearing to suggest that we ought to be completely unencumbered by worldly attachments.  Indeed, this is how many of the Corinthians understood the path to holiness.  Their sense was that the pleasures of the flesh, even within the bonds of matrimony, prevented one from being spiritual.  As a result, certain members of the Corinthian community would abstain from marital relations, often without first consulting their chagrined spouses.  This approach to spirituality was actually fairly common in the first century.  In certain circles, ascetics were held up as spiritual athletes; those who abstained from worldly pleasures were celebrated and believed to have charismatic authority.  For these groups, the more one abstained and the more temptations one resisted, the more spiritual power one acquired.  Apparently there were some Corinthians who thought that this correlation of abstinence and spirituality was a characteristic of the Christian life.  Moreover, they supposed that Paul, the confirmed crotchety old bachelor (probably never as eligible as George Clooney), would endorse this path to holiness and praise them for their temperance.  The snippet of text that we heard this morning might lead us to assume that the Corinthians supposed correctly.

But in fact, Paul has very little patience for this Corinthian approach to holiness.  While he concedes that some people are called to live single lives, Paul affirms that those who are married ought to behave as though they are married.  His rationale for this is striking.  Paul tells the Corinthians that spouses should give each other their conjugal rights because “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.”  A statement like that is precisely what we might expect from a man living in a patriarchal culture.  But Paul immediately provides a corrective: “Likewise,” he writes, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”  Paul describes a mutuality of relationship that was unheard of in the first century.  In describing how marriage ought to be, he implies that none of us is our own master, that we are all subject to the sovereignty of the God made known to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Ultimately, this is why Paul refuses to endorse the ascetic path to holiness.  While the Corinthians believed that they could abstain their way to spiritual power, Paul insists that true holiness comes only from what God has done through Jesus Christ.  While the Corinthians believed that spiritual charisma was something to acquire, Paul affirms that it is a gift given by the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  For Paul, the resurrection is the standard by which we measure every aspect of our lives.  For Paul, the resurrection reorients our priorities and changes the way we experience the world.

This brings us to the passage we heard this morning.  Paul tells those who are married, those who mourn, those who rejoice, and those who have dealings with the world to live as though none of these things were true.  Though it may seem like Paul is being dismissive, it’s pretty clear from his earlier meditations on marriage that he believes these states of being to be incredibly important, vital elements of the Christian community.  Far from encouraging the Corinthians to ignore their marriages or their livelihoods or their emotions, Paul is exhorting the congregation to put these into the proper perspective.  Now for George Clooney, proper perspective is viewing his achievement in light of his wife’s accomplishments.  imgresFor Paul, however, the proper perspective is viewing everything in light of the resurrection. This is essentially Paul’s primary purpose in writing first Corinthians.  The whole letter builds to a soaring, comprehensive meditation on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event Paul affirms is so significant that it dwarfs every other event in history and every other concern of humanity.  For Paul, the resurrection exposes the triviality of the Corinthians’ petty squabbles, claims to spiritual authority, and economic differences.  For Paul, the resurrection tempers earthly sorrows and joys, because it allows us to experience the fullness of God’s glory.  For Paul, the resurrection empowers us to live our lives unchained from the uncertainties of this life and to put our trust in the God who has defeated the power of death.

There’s no question that we live in an uncertain world.  From terrorism to economic malaise to questions about the fairness of our justice system, there is much to be anxious about.  But I would also contend that we live in a world that lacks perspective.  Our culture tends to respond to every event in a very predictable way: first we are shocked, then we are outraged, and then we forget.  Far from encouraging understanding, this pattern leads us to privilege novelty and ignore issues that are actually important.  Living in light the resurrection allows us to shift our perspective.  It enables us to disregard the ephemeral and recognize that which is of lasting importance.  It equips us to participate in God’s transforming work as we build for a future that has been and will be redeemed.  It liberates us from worldly anxiety and encourages us to put our trust in the faithfulness of God.  Above all, living in light of the resurrection empowers us to look at the world with a new perspective, one shaped by the knowledge that through Jesus Christ, God is making all things new.

On Fruitcakes and the Incarnation

Sermon on John 1:1-18 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here. To hear an abridged version of Truman Capote’s story read by the author, click here.

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Photograph of young Truman and his cousin taken by “the young Wistons.”

In 1956, Truman Capote published a short story about his childhood called A Christmas Memory.  It is a wonderfully evocative tale of how young Truman and his aging cousin, Miss Sook, celebrated Christmas in Depression-era rural Alabama.  The story centers around the pair’s Christmas preparations, the most important of which is the baking of thirty fruitcakes for “friends” across the country.  Capote describes how he and his cousin collect windfall pecans, purchase candied pineapple at the general store, and procure illegal whiskey from the unsmiling and terrifying Mr. Haha.  He also points out that the fruit of their considerable labor does not necessarily benefit their neighbors or relatives.  “Indeed,” he observes, “the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter…Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch.”  At one point in the story, Miss Sook wonders if Mrs. Roosevelt will serve their cake at Christmas dinner.  Of course, we all know that there is no way that that could happen, that the vast majority of recipients probably didn’t know what to do with this fruitcake from these people they barely remember, and I suspect that Capote and Miss Sook understood this at some level.  Every year, however, Truman and his cousin would pool their meager savings, invest an incredible amount of time and effort, and send more than thirty fruitcakes around the country to people who might not even want them.  From a common sense perspective, this whole enterprise seems inefficient and pointless.  If Capote and his cousin were to do a cost benefit analysis, it would be very clear that that this particular Christmas ritual is a waste of time.  And yet, they embrace this task with such joy, with such enthusiasm, with such delight that everyone can see why the process of making and sending fruitcake continues to be part of their Christmas experience.

This morning, we heard the extraordinary prologue to John’s gospel.  This passage is foundational to the Christian faith, which is part of the reason that it is always read on the first Sunday after Christmas.  This text describes the fullness of God’s creative power and then proceeds to illustrate the astonishing surprise of the Incarnation.  This passage invites us to meditate on one of the central Christian mysteries: that God became one of us, that the author of all creation became part of that creation, that the Word became flesh and lived among us.  But even as John describes the incredible power of the Creator becoming part of creation, he acknowledges that not everyone recognized the Word made flesh, that not everyone embraced the reality of God with us.  John tells us that the Word, Jesus Christ, came to what was his own, but that his own people did not accept him.  It’s a peculiar reference, particularly in John’s gospel.  John’s personality is somewhat unique among the evangelists.  While Matthew, Mark, and Luke are perfectly content to depict the humanity of Jesus (all three have Jesus doubting, getting annoyed, and even getting hungry occasionally) John’s portrayal of Jesus is otherworldly and divine.  In John’s gospel, Jesus knows exactly what is going to happen to him; Jesus is initiates his own mission and he is in control of his own life and death.  So it is surprising, then, that in the sweeping introduction to his gospel, John would mention that people rejected Jesus.  The fact that people rejected the Word leads us to wonder about the purpose of the Incarnation.  The triumphal tone of John’s gospel seems to suggest the point of the Incarnation was to make Christians, to bring as many people into relationship with God through Jesus Christ as possible.  Why else would John make the distinction between those who do not receive Jesus and those who “believe in his name”?  Surely, the way to understand this distinction is that those who “believe in his name” are those who are part of the Church, whereas those who reject the Word are those outside the body of the faithful.  In this view, those who recognize the presence of God in Jesus Christ are “Incarnation success stories.”  But this leaves us wondering how it is possible for anyone to ignore the very presence of the living God among them.  If the Incarnation is all about persuading people to adopt a particular religious perspective, then the fact that some people rejected Jesus is problematic.  In fact, it means that the Incarnation was a failure, that God’s participation in history was for naught, that the Word becoming flesh was a waste of time.

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Many take great solace in the fact that Jesus knew how to throw a party.

This limited understanding of the Incarnation is only accurate from a human perspective.  John, however, makes it very clear that the Incarnation is about much more than getting people’s names on the rolls.  At the end of the prologue, John articulates the true fruit of the Incarnation: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  The Incarnation is not a means of classification, it is the outpouring of God’s own self, the sharing of an unfathomable grace.  John affirms that God’s fullness is poured out abundantly, without regard for who receives it or what impact it may have or whether it will be rejected.  The Incarnation is not strategically targeted where it will be most effective; it is an extravagant, inefficient outpouring of everything that God is.  We see this illustrated in the miracle at Cana in the very next chapter of John’s gospel.  Jesus is told that the party has just run out of wine, and his response is not to make a per capita estimate based on consumption trends, but to produce more wine than anybody could possibly drink.  Like Miss Sook’s fruitcakes, the Incarnation is not about precise calculation; it is about the expression of joy and delight.  The Incarnation cannot be a failure because its only objective is to bring the fullness of God’s abundant grace into creation.

We live in a time when the message we proclaim during this Christmas season is not always well received.  If people are not hostile to our proclamation of “good news,” they are often indifferent.  For many people, the central figure of the Christmas season is not Jesus, but Santa Claus.  Our tendency is to respond to this situation either diagnostically or defensively.  Either we attempt to calculate exactly who we need to attract and how we can market the gospel to them or we angrily respond with “Merry Christmas” when people wish us a happy holiday.  Today, however, we are reminded that we are not called to diagnose or defend, but to live our lives with joy, to experience life aware of the abundant grace that God has extravagantly poured upon creation.  We are called to be beacons of this grace, and we are called to embrace this Christian vocation with such joy, with such enthusiasm, and with such delight that everyone can see how we have been shaped by the fullness of God’s grace.